“No use crying over spilt milk…”
Imagine you’re a resident of a small suburban neighbourhood in London, 1949, living a modest life in the rubble of World War II. Your neighbours uncover a hidden underground cache of treasure, which you’re all keen to hang on to rather than hand over to a museum… Obviously you keep the loot, declare independence from the United Kingdom and throw the rule of law out of the window – right?
It’s a credit to T.E.B. Clarke’s excellent script for Passport to Pimlico that the answer is never quite so simple. This Ealing Studios fable, which was released to UK cinemas in an age when British citizens were still subject to strict food rationing, manages to maintain the credibility of its high concept by walking a tightrope between straight-faced and silly – like The Ladykillers, perhaps, or Kind Hearts and Coronets. This is no better illustrated than when the opening theme begins as an ominous dirge, only to give way to a jauntier tune.
Our hero is Arthur Pemberton (Stanley Holloway), a shopkeeper in Pimlico who seems resigned to a quiet life. When an unexploded German bomb reveals an underground cavern stuffed with lost riches, Pemberton and his neighbours reach out to a historian who tells them that their district was technically never returned to England by the last Duke of Burgundy. Therefore, explains the Duke’s living heir apparent, Pimlico is no longer part of the UK – and Pemberton is selected to become their new Prime Minister.
The fine cast of actors including Holloway, Margaret Rutherford and an early role from Charles Hawtrey wring a lot of laughs from the chaos that follows – the glee of the residents upon finding out that they no longer need their ration books, and the Burgundians being bombarded with food parcels by London youths when it all goes tits up. The fact that things do go awry is, I hope, not a spoiler – you couldn’t conclude the film without order restored, and England whole again.
But it’s a bittersweet conclusion – in 1949 the idea of a new way of doing things would surely have been exciting for British cinemagoers, and to see it so swiftly demolished is disheartening. Is that my modern cynicism speaking? The idea of a radical new political system being established, and the political class being left out of the discussion, is tantalising.
While Passport in my opinion doesn’t reach the heights of the likes of The Lavender Hill Mob from Ealing, or even Whisky Galore! from the studio’s “community receives unexpected windfall via semi-legal means”sub-genre, that’s not saying much. It’s a fun, funny film that offers a glimpse of a London which will never exist again – five golden Burgundian chalices from me.